Saturday, February 19, 2011

Enough Money for Oysters

"My hopes of being a little old bald tubby man with money enough to eat oysters every day are shot."
                                                                                             - Richard Selzer, "Diary"

I could picture myself eating oysters every day. I probably have pictured myself doing just that, but like the diarist I suspect my modest stipend may not support my inclinations.

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

I could even picture myself "being a little old bald tubby man," although I've never really pictured myself as tubby. Nor bald either, come to that, when I was younger and wondered what age would bring; but baldness comes or not, no matter what our senescent self-portrait. The choice is no longer mine whether to picture myself that way or not. I suppose, if pressed, I had pictured myself something like this:

When I was much younger I pictured myself in old age smoking a pipe, sitting in the sunlight and (finally) reading Kant through from beginning to end. I may yet do that if I can stay awake, but surely without the pipe. I've smoked a pipe enough in my time to know that while the idea is pleasant enough the fact is repellent. My grandfather smoked a pipe of "Half and Half" which was fragrant through the house, but his empty pipes in the rack were rank and evil things. Whatever I decide about a pipe, though, this isn't quite what I have in mind:

"The chart, dammit - who smoked it?"

But picturing myself, eating oysters every day or not, bald or hairy, tubby or lean, not much in fear of what's to come, it occurs to me that one of the blessings of an increase in years is that giving a fig becomes a less pressing affair. The onset of age means that there is a sort of geological settlement in the character, and that it, like my tonsure, will be what it will be.

The irascible old fart is a cliche, a stock character, common enough but by no means inevitable. Ill-temper can seem to be a right earned simply by having survived long enough to have seen it all and lost all patience with the human comedy. Perhaps it works that way, but irascibility when it occurs in middle-age, can make the person preternaturally old - an "old soul," as they say. Max Reger, dead of a surfeit of beer and sausages by the age of 43, was an accomplished composer and organist at the turn of the century (the one before last), as memorable for his loutishness as for his music. To the critic on the Munich newspaper who had given his recital of the previous evening an unfavorable review, Reger wrote matter-of-factly: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."

Max Reger

In the circumstance, when attended by a quick wit, irascibility has its undeniable charms (speaking for myself). It is Reger's quick-wittedness I imagine having, which of course assumes that I will have wits in the first place. But then it's nearly as difficult to imagine oneself devoid of one's wits as it is to imagine oneself devoid of vital signs.

One must always bear in mind the Aristotelean mean to be rigorously hewed to when behaving irascibly, as in the exercise of any virtue. A deficiency of the quality makes an old man bland, anodyne in company, dull and overly forgiving of neglect or impertinence.  By contrast I remember a story in the local paper many years back - an elderly gentleman whom time had passed by found himself embattled in his own house by the deterioration of his neighborhood. Schoolchildren, to his deep chagrin, made his yard their regular shortcut, whether because of or in spite of his harangues and fist-shakings. When the police finally carted him away he had just run a group of the young interlopers off his property with a hatchet. Heroic in a feeble way, plainly exceeding the bounds of a dignified irritability. Perhaps a claw hammer would have preserved a morsel of respectability.

As for a ready wit, it is the sauce of conversation so long as it is not continually at the expense of another's dignity, propriety, amour-propre and good humor. The admonition of my alter ego serves as the surest bound of taste in exercising wit: "We are as able to be laughed at as we are able to laugh." The older we get, the truer that becomes.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Things I'd Rather Do Than Work

Go Fishing with Ernie

Go Riding with Coppi and Bartali

Go to the Park

Join the Circus

Drive the Getaway Car

Get Me Some Red Spectacles (check)

Join a Gospel Choir

Be Cheery

Learn to Weld

Drive the Getaway Car

See the Country

Study Engineering

Open a Small Business

Stow Away

Wash Up

Walk the Duck

Scalp Tickets


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Uhhh . . . What Exactly Did I Say I Could Do?

Resume writing, as I've already remarked, can be a moral minefield, offering as it does the palpable temptation to fictionalize our exploits. As often as not, when people revise their own curriculum vitae they are under some exigency. Unemployed, under-employed, tempted to reach a bit, we become more pliant in where we draw the line between the true and the sort of true, between truth and "truthiness." But the exigencies of the situation notwithstanding, it's a decision we make about where exactly we're each willing to set the bounds of accuracy. Given our human failings, we need all the help or cudgeling we can get to keep us within hailing distance of what's fair and factual. The burden of responsibility in these cases lies with us.

Or does it? Clearly if I'm applying for a real job with plainly stated (or just plain obvious) requirements and I claim that I can fulfill those requirements when in fact I can't, I've crossed a line. If I'm applying to be a short-order cook and can't cook or have never done that sort of cooking before; or if I'm applying for a warehouse job and can't lift 50 pounds; or if I intend to become a firefighter knowing I can't meet the physical challenges and claiming that I'm within the stipulated age limits, I'm somewhere out in the ethical weeds. There is the recurrent tale of the interloper in the medical fraternity who succeeds for a while on fabricated credentials (or as in this case, because they were trying to hide and happened on some hospital scrubs).

 "I t'ink we gonna hafta take offa da head."

But it's never that simple, and the lines can quickly get blurred. Are we being imposed upon when, say, Tom Hanks claims to be an actor? or when Christo passes for an artist rather than just a drapery salesman?

Does Christo Mean Curtains for Art?

What do we say when the job description asks for "sound judgment and instincts, good analytical, conceptual and strategic thinking skills, the ability to develop and manage projects independently, the ability to adapt and respond quickly to change"? Or worse, this one forwarded by my friend, Lori: "You will lead the high level design, task decomposition, and effort estimation over a significant area of responsibility.  You will create the detailed implementation and validation plan, and execute this plan through to product release." In neither case is it clear what exactly a person is expected to do, or to be able to do. So if I say I can do these things, am I misrepesenting my "skillset"? Is it the same thing as saying that I can do 100 orders of eggs over easy in an hour, when I can't?  

High-Level Design
The problem is that what we encounter more often than not isn't a job description at all, but the obscure and esoteric "product" of the ascendant science of "human resources." Human resources -"HR" - is a shady and amorphous operation with a broad and loosely defined function. It operates, like other faceless departments known primarily by acronym (FBI, KGB, IRS), to maintain a level of control over corporate or academic employees, to reduce the legal liabilities of the employer vis-a-vis its employees, and to replace the labor unions of a bygone age with something more to an employer's liking, all in the name of employee protections. HR, like "law enforcement," has adapted the language of the social sciences to a pidgin "bureaucratese" in which job descriptions are replaced with the obscure, pseudo-precise gibberish of "skillsets" and purposely vague "capabilities" requirements.

The Human Resources Department (actual humans)

It can get even more obscure when trying to figure out exactly what a company to which you may be applying for work does. Here's a stellar piece of prosifying that resists any attempt to wade through and make clear sense of. (I reproduce it without amending the charming illiteracies festooned throughout its opacity. See you on the other side.)

"Peak P3 simply maximizes Human Capital ROI, specifically with a company's sales force. Over 15 years of working with a multitude of company's [sic] with variant [sic] financial objectives, Peak P3 has defined a systematic formula and project management approach. This formula becomes the company's master strategy plan that outlines the process that enables their ability to profile and acquire the best talent, then develop that talent through established and proprietary processes and systems and finally retain this core group so as to best meet the immediate and future needs of the company. We are a culmination of specialized core competencies, field tested best practices and consummate research in real environments and we stand to gain only when our client gain [sic]  improvements in their Processes, Performance and Production."

This kind of blather requires the pretense that interested parties have at least some notion of what exactly is to be expected if employed by such a company. To describe in precise and concrete terms a job and the requirements for performance would mean anyone's performance could be measured against that description. When the terms of employment do not admit of any precision, offer no clear standards of assessing job performance, then the deck can be stacked against anyone for nearly any cause. That seems to be one of the primary functions of human resources, the very phrase suggesting that humans are a corporate "resource," a commodity of the marketplace, interchangeable, replaceable at will.

So the lines of responsibility for personal probity can get blurry. "The Devil made me do it," might be a legitimate defense against charges of misrepresentation or downright lying about what one knows or can do. Loose language and the obscure bureaucratic solecisms of the HR world easily tempt the exigent job-seeker to trade in false coin, to forsake the factual for the facile, to substitute expediency for exactitude, perjury for probity, ingenuity for ingenuousness.

Like they say over in HR,

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Peddling Bicycles: Marketing by Illiteracy

Yesterday's post considered the new rhetorical style of "distributed marketing" currently on tap on the web - blowsy, rambling copy intended to sell a "lifesyle" to the Urban Hipster. The height of this bloviation concerns hand-built bicycles, many of which are made and doubtless sold in Portland to Portland's throngs of hipsters, millionaires, baristas and urban shepherds.

Shepherd Graffiti in Portland 

Buying one of these mobile works of art is, according to the Cycles Papillon copyist, like entering a new sexual relationship, one that really works, a union made in Heaven: "There is no better bicycle than one made specifically for you. One that fits your body but also one that fulfills your dreams and aspirations."  It's a physical and spiritual relationship that should be entered, if you'll permit that word here, with just as much care, circumspection and hope as a relationship with the Beloved (although more of that in a moment, just to keep the best cat in the bag.)

Buridan's Dilemma', Portland Style: Pick One

The Argonaut copyist begins by asking, "So why buy an Argonaut custom bicycle instead of one of the many other custom bicycles on the market?" A fair question; to which the natural rejoinder is, "A fair question.  I'll take the next year or so and rethink a purchase that right now seems ill-considered." But the purchase of an Argonaut puts you in the way of a good deal more than the average bike buyer ever bargained for. Read further into the site and you will quickly be wondering whether Argonaut's craftsmen are clandestine FBI agents or defrocked priests intent on dragging you into the nearest confessional:

Argonaut Bicycles, Portland ("questionnaire room")

"Every buyer starts out by filling out a comprehensive questionnaire intended [to] give me a general idea of what type of cyclist you are, and uncover any special needs or desires you might have. The questionnaire is then followed by a phone interview intended to open the lines of communication, and hash out the specific details of your bike [like one wheel or two?]. . . . [Then] I’ll work with you to find the best certified bicycle fitter in your area who will help me design a bike . . . . This process accompanied by painstaking attention to detail and world-class fabrication techniques guarantees that your Argonaut will be one of your most prized possessions."

A "comprehensive" questionnaire, a wearying and superfluous phone interview, a Savile Row fitting (probably equally lengthy and painful, certainly more expensive), a "collabo" design job, and you'll finish (provided age and decrepitude have not by then taken you to the bosom of your Maker) with "one of your most prized possessions," which clearly don't include either your sanity or your privacy. "Opening the lines of communication" sounds to me like a Beltway euphemism for wiretapping, which I understand is actually less painful (unless, of course, it's done by a certified bicycle fitter).

Certified Bicycle Fitting Room

Ira Ryan takes the "epic autobiographical" approach to marketing, one of the more tiresome forms of the genre. He tells a knockabout, Pirates-of-the-Caribbean tale ending in bloodshed, begging the conclusion that you should buy a bike from him. None of his self-importance seems to have any bearing on whether Ira is able to build a bike, but I guess it's possible to buy swashbuckling history in lieu of one.

"I have built over a hundred bicycles since I opened the doors of my workshop in 2005. They are all a result of a love affair with the bicycle as a tool for discovery. . . . I have been a cycle-tourist, raced . . . wrenched on week long tours and in dark basements, messengered in the rain . . .  caught in midwestern hail storms . . . . ridden carbon fiber race bikes, bad suspension mountain bikes . . .  rusty cruisers found in alleys in the snow. I have cut my hands on a sharp lug and shed blood for my craft."

"Dial-A-Pirate," Ira Ryan's frame order software

Stop Cycles' copy requires little comment, combining bad stream-of-consciousness (cf. Capote on Kerouac: "That's not writing, that's typing") with a recurrent icon of the Portlandic trust fund community, the passionate-yet-failed "art major". First, the obligatory profession of sincere artistic ineptitude compounded by staggering ineptitude for business:

"All art was created by our team of starving, out of work art majors who went to school to follow their passion but got left holding a big bill but have spades of talent. We traded them all a 6-pack of beer and some chicken wings for some art and we were pretty happy with what we got.

Then the inchoate artistic passion of a newly discovered (and of course "epic") artisanal calling:

"Mum’s the word when being spoken to and bleeding hearts wrapped in lace bring an elegant touch to this tube wrap style decal package.  

"Multiple color options and a peaceful groove ['groove' was one of Kerouac's default words] await this colorway option . . . . Little nuggets of peace."

(I have to ask, is "multiple color option" the same or not the same as "colorway option"? I mean, if I'm being offered multiple colors, wouldn't that just be a "color option" - well, "colorway option," then.)

Renovo brings high tech to the age-old art of woodcarving - their frames are made of exotic woods, often woods from Oregon (which would be the 'exotics' pine, spruce and fir, right?)

"Wood is tough stuff; from axe handles and baseball bats to the walnut stocks of the 1903 Springfield rifles. . . .These rifles were thrown from trucks, dragged through sand, rivers and hell, used as pry bars, clubs, crutches and still functioned as rifles." 

Here's a specimen, the Renovo TT bike, the dream alike of chainsaw artistes and carvers of small lidded rosewood boxes. Treat it like you would a rifle butt and sit on it:

 "If I break it can you weld it?"

Quixote Cycles  is our sweepstakes runner-up. Its copy incorporates in a scant two lines or so the Jungian grail "quest" twice, and manages to be both cringingly  pretentious and idiotic (it's not easy to stand out in this crowd, either):  

"It is my quest to change your preferred mode of personal transportation . . . . With this [bicycle?], you may sally forth on your own quest and together we shall change the world."

"Together we shall do this-or-that" always has such an apocalyptic ring to it. How about, "Together we shall warm the world"? With marketing outreach like this I'd prefer them to change my preferred mode of public transportation and leave my personal transport well out of it.

But the real winner in this carnival is Beloved, the love child of Chris King of expensive-water-bottle-cage fame. This site combines everything pretentious with everything illiterate, overheated, self-indulgent, gormless and fey. I feel constrained to quote at length (which, given the vocabular range of the typical web content person is fatiguing and just short of maddening, but not the eternity it seems).

The introit to the site simmers with a contained pentecostal fervor, invoking infinity by beginning sentences with infinitives: "To feel the wind in your hair. To feel the sun on your face. To find new love for the neighborhoods, the street corners, the passers-by. To re-inspire the well grooved commute. The freedom to find a new way. To wander. To work. To be among friends."

And then a Beethovenesque gerundive, in the key of the Ninth Symphony: "Let us chase the sun."

What follows is a yammering, drooling prose poem to each of three Beloved models, 'There and Back', 'No Haste' and 'Flamme Rouge'.

"There and Back is the sun on the horizon peaking slowly over the crisp morning. It is dew lapping your shoe from the road. It knows the destination fully to itself but not to you. It labels the road not in smoothness, pavement or pavé, but asks only for it to keep going. From brow to hand to hood, it tells a thousand stories of adventure along the way. Taking the road less traveled, and getting lost, then found.

"Taking time, oh sweet time is stenciled on the journal of No Haste. With haste comes wasted opportunities, and by all means one must take the time for experience. Whether wind, rain or baking heat tailor the theater of the day, all is digested and taken root as a promise kept. The journey, not the destination, is baked into the very being of No Haste.

"A monumental breed. A site of passion and madness, the Flamme Rouge is a small peloton of friends, a sprint to the county line. It gives you narrative and acceleration for the mind, body and soul. It has the ability to mix it up with the best using classic attitude. Rolling hills, steep descents, the Flamme Rouge burns on the manifest doctrine of steel is real."

I also label the road not in smoothness, not being given to labelling roads in general and particularly if there's actual traffic on them. I also know the destination fully by itself but not to you, unless of course I decide to let you in on where we're going.  I also have the ability to mix it up with the best using classic attitude, I'd just prefer to do it in someone else's kitchen. But when I have to "tailor the theater of the day," man, I get flummoxed. I'm willing just to stick with stencilling time on the journal of No Haste, although if a bicycle is keeping a journal, then for my money it can do its own stencilling.

No Haste (anymore)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

English 101: Pretentious is the New Poetic

Being an occasional reader of Bike Snob NYC, I'm invariably amused by his repeated excoriation of Portland as the Capitol of Smugness. Not that the entire population is insufferable, but most Portlanders, about eight million of them, seem to be one way or other engaged in the fair trade coffee industry, boutique brewing, bicycle frame building, or making expensively drab "urban hipster" clothing without which Portlanders cannot possibly ride their bicycles or pursue any of the activities aforementioned. (The rest of them are all respectably employed fabricating hammered aluminum bicycle fenders, portageur racks, leather-clad coffee mugs and hand-sewn waxed cotton saddle bags.) Portlanders are just self-congratulatory enough to believe that, were any of these pursuits trammeled or hindered, the world as we know it would cease. Anyway, the Snob's Portlandic epic aroused my curiosity sufficiently to dumpster-dive some of the Portland-based commercial and trade websites to see what was on offer. It seems that marketing very expensive bikes and urban hipster bike clothes to nonemployed trust fund dependents has sparked a renaissance in the American vernacular.

In Madison Avenue's Golden Age, advertising wasn't expected to be true, but it was expected to be comprehensible and expressed in standard English. There was nothing exceptionable about saying, for example . . .

. . . it just had to sound snappy and remain stolidly intractible to the empirical method. The exclamation point carried a good deal of the verve and force of the Madison Avenue style.

By contrast, the incomprehensible maunderings of the current web ad copyists drip with the self-important, autobiographizing moral aggrandizement reserved to those whose every epic deed averts a grave planetary wobble. From deep in the garment district, Nonetheless offers "The Urban Traveler . . . . an invite program that brings together our friends and family of like mind. It's a collaborative that breathes authentic life utilizing word, picture, sound, film, and innovation. The Urban Traveler shares experiences of substance, creativity, enlightenment, knowledge, approach, passion, context, vision, and discovery."

 This is about completely unimaginative clothes, remember. An ad for Outlier, a sister ragmaker, breathlessly intones, 

"The sun is rising, the air clear, the city unfolds below you as you reach the top of the bridge. Your legs are spinning fast, heart pumping, maybe you are sweating just a touch. It's a magical feeling of exhilaration and liberation that comes from riding a bike in a city. Inside trains, humans are imitating sardines, while drivers stall and stew in their own exhaust. The cyclist however is completely free, in motion, almost flying, a huge smile wiped across their face. . . . a world where bikes are a part of your daily life. At the core, Outlier clothing is about a certain freedom. A freedom to ride, regardless of the destination. You should always look like you belong inside the city, not just out on the road pedaling. . . . Our garments are designed to make getting to that freedom just a little bit easier. 

"In many ways Outlier is a child of the Garment District. When we started this company neither of us really knew how to make clothing. . . . 

"We believe in strong communities and we see both our production people and our customers as an integral part of our personal community. We are here to build a long lasting company dedicated to quality. Quality in our product of course, and also quality in how we relate to the world. We treat people fairly and we treat our environment like it's not just our home, but the home we want our grandchildren to ride their bikes in."  

Taken together, this drivel incorporates all the elements of the New School of Ad Copy. These elements are, first, that what is on offer is never merely a product; it is a "program," a "collaborative" that is always "about" something other than what you thought you were looking for or needed - clothing, in this instance. Buy this and you get Transcendence as well.


Second, you are already one of a group apart. "Outlier clothing is about a certain freedom. . . .You should always look like you belong inside the city, not just out on the road pedaling -  where you probably should be if you're on a bike. You're not one of those un-free sardines on the commuter train, not one of the rubes along the road you wouldn't be caught dead on, so to speak. You are hipper than everyone, among them but not of them. And, although it's unpleasant to admit, if you're on a bicycle you're also way down among 'em, "stewing" in everyone else's exhaust.

Third, like you, they don't have a clue about what they're doing. "When we started this company neither of us really knew how to make clothing. . . ."  which , while probably faultlessly honest, is a disclaimer sufficient to encourage me to shop elsewhere if the complete want of style weren't already enough. "We're no experts, therefore we must be good at it," parses about as well as the cogitations of a Tea Party economic theorist.

Fourth, spending a considerable amount of your trust money with us is really the best and easiest way you can get a life - an "authentic life utilizing word, picture, sound, film, and innovation. The Urban Traveler shares experiences of substance, creativity, enlightenment, knowledge, approach, passion, context, vision, and discovery." You made it, you belong, you're never bored any longer, and you can tell who your friends are because they look exactly like you. Now you have a life and it's being recorded in multimedia.

Finally, in purchasing these little bijoux for what they ask, you are doing your part to create "strong" "personal" "community" where everyone is treated respectfully and fairly and they all work together to treat the environment respectfully and fairly and . . . and . . . oh, it's just all so breathless and uplifting.

Uplift this urban hipster

And we haven't even gotten to the really good part, the exotic craftsmanship that goes into each one of these little cosmos of the artisan's mind. That is reserved for the handbuilt, really expensive Portland bicycle, for which you can wait a lifetime. And will.

More about bicycles tomorrow. I've got to start up the old Chevrolet, pick up a carton of Camel straights and a quart of crankcase oil, and make it home in time to watch John Cameron Swayze on the "Camel News Caravan." I'm nothing if not brand loyal.

Post Nasal: The February Kvetch

Bleary-eyed from the cold the other morning, a little worse for the lingering winter, I awoke to the familiar sounds of the concertina and looked out my front door onto this scene unfolding in my yard.

 Shucks, I thought to myself. Snowing again.

Time hangs heavy in February when there aren't any of those 60-degree days in the forecast, when you don't absolutely have to leave the house, when you find yourself making up things to do so you don't have to exercise, like napping under a chair or in an appliance box.

It could be worse - I haven't been ejected from the adult video rental yet, or been asked to leave the WalMart parking lot, so it's not as though there are no "firsts" left to do for amusement.

I'll be the first to admit I'm finding all sorts of reasons to malinger. Maybe I didn't sleep so well last night, though I can't understand why not;

or maybe I'm starting to get a rash;

and of course, once you leave the house, anything might happen . . . .

But at some point in the morning the phone rang; in a weak moment I had contacted people on the "outside." Someone wanted to talk to me about coming to work - some poor soul who had driven up from Louisiana, thinking he'd have a nice crisp sunshiney Colorado business trip, and we both ended up doing the "Interstate Iditarod" to have lunch and a chat.

By this time it has occurred to me that my current employment status may be the source of my general ennui. It's hard to care sometimes what cap you choose to leave the house in, never mind the more critical items of the wardrobe. Nonetheless, there we were, having lunch and a friendly chat.

 "T. Boone Who?"

It's not that I want badly to go back to work,

but I also don't like the disadvantages of not having my head twisted around backwards. It's a ticklish situation, one that has its pleasures either way but leaves it pretty much up to you to decide which pleasure you prefer.

Clearly not an easy choice, and one that inevitably contributes to the sense of lassitude in an unwilling participant. Or the inertia of insurmountable indecision, as in the famous case of Buridan's Ass,

immobilized somewhere between the Nicaragua of gainful employment and the Panama of leisure. (Leave it to a medieval logician to put an ass in a sling.) 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Post-Super Bowl Tristesse

It's Monday morning, the Blue Monday after Black Sunday for many of us. I'm not chipper this morning about the results of yesterday's game. And, in spite of the warning about post-Super Bowl stress I had from my latest issue of Clinical Cardiology,  I almost had a heart attack when I looked at the front page of the New York Times and saw a photograph of the late Vince Lombardi. Vince has apparently, in the wake of Green Bay's victory, come out of retirement to receive congratulations and good wishes from an anonymous fan (who, as it happens, is the late Vladimir Nabokov).

As you can see, Vince is a little grayer these days, and a little more portly than in the trim fighting years of his legendary coaching career at Green Bay. Vince's whereabouts in recent decades is something of a mystery to the sports press - nonetheless, he told reporters, he was glad to be back. "These last years haven't been too bad," he said, "just a little boring. You know, they always told me, Heaven is where the Te Deum  becomes tedium."

Asked if he had plans to return to the helm of the Packers, Lombardi told reporters that it was a bit too early to consider any coaching plans. "But," he reflected, "Joe Paterno's been gone for over 10 years now, and he's still coaching."

Post-game coverage in today's Times also carries an artist's depiction of Green Bay in the aftermath of last night's Packer victory. It looks a lot more exciting than where Vince has been spending his time.